Transcript, Episode 94: Process as Destination, Jeremy McQueen’s “WILD,” and Dancing to Car Alarms

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Lydia Murray:
And I’m Lydia Murray.

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, and in this week’s episode, we will talk about Works & Process at the Guggenheim’s new LaunchPAD initiative, which offers a hearteningly comprehensive take on pandemic relief for performing artists. We will discuss Black Iris Project founder Jeremy McQueen’s newest work, WILD, which examines the juvenile justice system, and then also talk about McQueen’s ongoing efforts to create and support ballets that are connected to the present. And we will take a few minutes to highlight the brilliant TikTok creator Kai Jmarii, who has amassed a huge following on the app by dancing to the most unlikely sounds.

I’m actually going to skip the housekeeping this week because we have a rather significant list of headline rundown stories. So let’s get right into those headlines, starting with some really tragic news.

Lydia Murray:
Last weekend, the dance world lost Nai-Ni Chen, the dancer, choreographer, and founder of Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company. Her work used traditional Chinese and contemporary elements, and her company performed across the US and internationally for over 30 years. She passed away in a swimming accident at the age of 62.

Margaret Fuhrer:
That’s so incredibly sad. We’ve linked to the obituaries for Chen that ran in both New Jersey Stage and also in the New York Times. Those are both in the show notes.

It is about to be the end of an era at New York City Center. Arlene Shuler will step down as president of the organization at the end of its 2021-2022 season. Shuler is a former dancer who has led City Center since 2003, and during her tenure, she instituted its just enormously popular Fall for Dance series. She will not be involved in choosing her successor, but here’s hoping it’s someone who’s similarly dance focused. Fingers crossed.

Lydia Murray:
A production adapted from The Little Prince is planning a five month run on Broadway for next year. It was created by the director and choreographer Anne Tournié, and will combine acrobatics, dance, and video projections rather than taking the form of a traditional musical or play. The show had previous runs in Dubai, Paris and Sydney, and it’s scheduled to run at the Broadway Theater from March 4th to August 14th.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, I know this production has already been out in the world for a bit, but I’m personally very curious to see what it actually looks like, how it incorporates all those elements. And also just to see—I mean, will anything be able to escape that long shadow of the film version from 1974, with Bob Fosse as the Snake and Gene Wilder as the Fox? And, I think, Donna McKechnie is in it, I think she’s the Rose? That’s a tall order. But it does sound like a completely different beast. So, we’ll see.

Speaking of movie musicals: Universal Pictures has acquired Phantom, a new movie musical adaptation of the Gaston Leroux novel The Phantom of the Opera. It features a script by John Fusco that sets the story in contemporary New Orleans, and John Legend is one of the producers. Just to clarify, this new film is in no way affiliated with the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, except for the fact that they were both inspired by the same novel. But I don’t know, I’m pretty excited to see how they’ve translated the plot to the French Quarter. The release says that in this version, Christine is “a H.E.R.-like neo-soul singer ingenue,” and color me intrigued by that.

Lydia Murray:
The choreographer Rosie Kay recently resigned from the dance company that she founded in 2004 after facing accusations of transphobia, and she spoke to the media about her decision. The dancers subsequently wrote a letter expressing their concern that Kay jeopardized their careers by speaking about the situation publicly. They also gave examples of her alleged improper behavior.

Margaret Fuhrer:
What an absolute mess. We have linked to the BBC’s coverage of it all in the show notes so you can read more about it.

This week a new Dance Data Project report came out, a global study this time as opposed to the previous US-focused studies that DDP has done. So, their analysis of 175 companies from 56 countries revealed that only 33% of major ballet companies globally are led by women, and that the probability of an artistic director having a female successor is less than 30%, which sounds pretty grim. But there is a glimmer of hope here. Of the seven artistic directors announced so far for 2022 and later, three of them are women. That’s 43%. So, a little positive progress. And there are still a bunch of holes that remain to be filled.

Lydia Murray:
Tap dance legend Savion Glover is offering his own NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, in partnership with Nederlander Worldwide Entertainment. We’ve talked about NFTs on the podcast before, but for anyone who’s unfamiliar, NFT is a form of digital art or experience sold through blockchain technology, and it offers owners rights through an embedded smart contract. Glover’s NFT Preview #1, titled “My Voice,” which is available now, shows him on the way to the theater rehearsing, and to quote its description, “proclaiming his place in the NFT space, using dance as his voice.”

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think it’s really cool that these are not being offered at auction, which is what we’ve seen with other NFTs in the dance space. They’re a fixed price. They’re about $110 each, and there are 300 copies of each available. It’s like a more accessible dance NFT model, which I’m really on board for.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, same here.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Here is some happy news out of Jacob’s Pillow. The Pillow’s flagship theater, the Ted Shawn Theatre, will reopen this summer just in time for the organization’s 90th anniversary, a nice birthday present. And a point of clarification: This is not the theater that burned down last year. That was the smaller Doris Duke Theatre. The Shawn has actually been undergoing a long term, pretty extensive renovation to make it more accessible to both artists and audiences, to improve the HVAC system, and to make the stage more dancer friendly—like, dancers won’t have to run around outside the building to do an offstage crossover, for example. So yeah, a nice birthday present for the Pillow.

Lydia Murray:
The world recently bid farewell to two more dance luminaries, Robert Farris Thompson and Galina Samsova. Thompson was a renowned scholar of African arts who was given the Outstanding Contribution to Dance Research Award by the Congress on Research and Dance in 2007. He died on November 29th at age 88. And Samsova was a former principal of London Festival Ballet and former artistic director of Scottish Ballet. She passed away on December 11th at age 84.

Margaret Fuhrer:
All right, so that concludes our headline rundown. In our first discussion segment today, we wanted to talk about a new project that’s taking a really holistic approach to pandemic recovery. Works & Process, which is the Guggenheim’s performing arts series, officially announced its LaunchPAD “Process as Destination” initiative this past week. And the idea for the initiative is to support the entirety of performing artists’ creative processes over a period of two years, as they try to rebound after shutdowns. It’s an extension of Works & Processes’ successful bubble residency program, which we’ve talked about a bunch, but crucially LaunchPAD will offer artists not only rehearsal and performance space, but also living wages and transportation—and, hallelujah, health insurance. There’s a lot to like here.

Lydia Murray:
There is. This is really a great step in the right direction. I mean, how many times have we talked about the difficulties of a career in dance and the prolonged challenges that artists will face for years to come because of the pandemic?

So, this program brings together eight residency partners throughout the Hudson Valley and Long Island that’ll collectively support New York performing artists. Works and Process will offer collaborators living wages, transportation, and healthcare insurance, and residency partners are going to provide studio and theater space along with housing. So each project in the program is going to have extended support through multiple sequenced and fully funded residencies, and they’ll receive help that’s tailored to their needs.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I think it’s so great that Works and Processes continuing these partnerships that it developed with all these New York area presenting organizations during the pandemic, when it was kind of looking around for places for artists to do bubble residencies, saying like, “Who can house people and keep them safe and socially distanced?” Now, a lot of those residency partners, in the Hudson Valley and Long Island, as we were saying, are participating in this initiative, which is great. Love to see more collaboration and just more communication, period, among these types of institutions, because that almost always ends up being a boon for artists.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. It’s great to see that continuation happening.

Margaret Fuhrer:
The other thing I really like is the whole focus on the process itself, process being as important as product, which of course is Works & Processes’ whole mission. But I like that the program doesn’t specify, “We’re giving you these resources, and you must in turn, give us a product by this time.” It’s more, “When you’re ready for your work to be performed, we have a stage for you.” So it’s sort of the best of all worlds in that way.

Lydia Murray:
Agreed. Yeah. I think the standard model, it can create just too much pressure, and it can just be stifling. So this is really just great to see.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Kudos as ever to Duke Dang and the whole Dance Magazine Award-winning team at Works & Process. And by the way, if you haven’t had a chance to listen to the interview that we did with Duke, about how that team pioneered the bubble residency during the pandemic, please do go back and check it out. It’s fascinating stuff. That was in episode 59 from this April.

So in our next segment today, we’d like to talk about the importance of telling ballet stories that reflect our current world and the diverse voices in it. Choreographer Jeremy McQueen’s latest work, called WILD, is exactly that kind of ballet project. McQueen is the founder of Black Iris Project, which is a ballet collaborative championing Black-centric work. And WILD is an exploration of how young people, especially those who are Black, are affected by incarceration. It was actually released as three films and one live event over the course of the past year, and those three films are now available for viewing on the Black Iris Project website. Pointe magazine ran a great interview with McQueen this week, discussing WILD and how ballet can stop living in the past.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah, I found WILD to be such a deeply moving work, my gosh. There was just so much brilliance on display.

But just a bit of background on the piece. So Jeremy McQueen visited the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama at the beginning of 2020. And if you’re unfamiliar, the museum focuses on the legacy of slavery in the US, from the trans-Atlantic slave trade to mass incarceration. And he saw a photo of a young boy in a cell who was facing a wall covered in sketches. And he thought about what his inner life might have been like, and what trauma was he dealt with, and ultimately the impact of incarceration on Black youth. And that idea is at the heart of WILD.

It was also loosely inspired by the Maurice Sendak book Where the Wild Things Are. The parallel there is kind of the focus on a young boy, who’s believed to be a wild thing. And in the context of McQueen’s work, it applies in the sense of Black Americans being considered super predators or otherwise animalistic.

McQueen also expressed concern that this wouldn’t be appreciated as a ballet, because he’s gotten that feedback before. And he pointed out that this work really touches on themes that have been expressed in classical ballet for generations. Like, Le Corsaire deals with slavery, and that kind of thing. And of course this has ballet choreography too. But that’s so important, to have ballet continue and to evolve and take shape in these new forms that are modern and have contemporary relevance.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I thought his response to being accused of not making ballet, “this isn’t ballet, was exactly right.” If we include stories like Manon, which is about prostitution, and Le Corsaire, which is about slavery, in our definition of ballet, why can’t a story about juvenile incarceration fall inside that definition? They’re all similar themes, similar ideas, similar feelings.

Also, the fact that he was the first choreographer to receive a Soros Justice Fellowship—that’s an initiative that funds work reforming and discussing the US criminal justice system. It does seem like dance, because it is a physical mode of expression, has a unique ability to communicate what happens to a person when they are physically confined, when their every movement is controlled inside a prison environment. And we talked about that on the podcast a few months ago in our discussion of choreographer Suchi Branfman’s work with incarcerated people.

I think dance is also good at conveying the exact opposite, complete freedom. And we see that in the final film in the WILD series, which came out most recently, and imagines a world without an incarceration system. The ecstasy of that freedom, that physical freedom, is so much more powerful when contrasted so directly, as it is in the WILD series, with the anguish of confinement.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. In “These Walls Can Talk,” the way that was constructed was McQueen had a dozen, or roughly a dozen, professional dancers create and perform and film their choreography based on a prompt. And every dancer’s work was inspired by photos and personal statements that were found in the book Juvie Talk by Richard Ross, who’s a Guggenheim Fellow, who was also the photographer behind the image that McQueen saw at the museum. And then the videos that the choreographers made were projected onto the walls of a cell on stage that the dancer performed in. And that was kind of designed to create a contrast between his confinement and his limitless imagination. And that just kind of, what you just said, Margaret, kind of reminded me of that and how that took shape in the work itself.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And it’s incredibly effective. It’s incredibly effective.

Lydia Murray:
It is. Yeah. But you were also saying about the Soros Justice Fellowship—it kind of reminded me of, I think there was something at the end of the Pointe piece that McQueen said about the importance of investing in Black youth, and how we won’t have any more Alvin Aileys or Arthur Mitchells without that. And I just thought about how great this was, and how well expressed it was, and how…I mean in any form, I’m sure even with less funding, he still would’ve created something brilliant and important. But just seeing what can happen when you actually have resources to create something like this was something that stuck with me as well.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean the real reason we’re talking about all this is because we hope you’ll go watch WILD and go read McQueen’s own words in the Pointe story. So we’ve of course included all those links in the show notes. Please do, do go check them out.

All right. So finally today, let’s play one of our favorite games: TikTok dance creators we are obsessed with.

Lydia Murray:
We do talk about that a lot. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
We do talk about it a lot. And we’re not going to stop. [laughter] This week, BuzzFeed ran a story about Kai Jmarii, who is a 21 year old choreographer and comedian who’s become a TikTok superstar thanks to his ability to dance to seemingly any sound. And I do mean any sound. One of his most popular videos is him dancing to a car alarm. I’m personally quite partial to his choreography to the JG Wentworth jingle. He just has a genius for this very particular, very weird, very wonderful thing. And he’s also a really good dancer. It’s everything we want from TikTok, basically.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. He’s amazing. It’s that signature TikTok brand of accessibility and just zaniness, I guess, but in the best possible way. He mentioned that he kind of started doing this because he thought, what can I do to make myself visible that everybody can love, but what is no one else really doing? And he thought, well, I could dance to theme songs or dance to sounds that people don’t really think that people can dance to. And he’s so great at it.

And like Margaret said, he’s used a range of sounds. He’s used a remix of the Netflix ta-dum opening sound. And he mentioned that he freestyles it, and it only takes about 10 minutes to come up with these.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Which is bonkers.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah! He just kind of says, “Hey, let me go outside and sort of see what comes to my mind.” And he’s gotten a lot of attention. He’s gotten props from a lot of celebrities. And also he’s mentioned that as a young gay male, his visibility online has helped him to not feel afraid of dancing in public and being himself to the fullest.

Margaret Fuhrer:
I love that. I don’t know, I feel like we hear so much about bullying and terrible things happening on social platforms, and here’s a social platform that’s actually helping somebody express themselves fully and authentically. We need more of those kinds of stories.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Also, was he one of the first people to do the Megan Thee Stallion “Body” choreography to Adele’s “Water Under the Bridge”?

Lydia Murray:
Oh, I don’t know.

Margaret Fuhrer:
He definitely contributed to that whole meme in a way that was—he’s especially good at it. But I also love…I mean, Kai is a professional dancer. That’s a big part of why he’s such a success, because he’s truly talented. And in October he choreographed and danced at the Rolling Loud Music Festival with rapper DreamDoll. It’s just great to see this kind of creator, as you said, Lydia, getting real recognition outside of TikTok. It’s translating into professional opportunities, too.

Lydia Murray:
Yeah. And of course he wants to continue to choreograph for celebrities. I hope he gets to.

It’s cool to see the evolution of dance on social media. It’s like, thinking back to the early 2000s or the early 2010s or so, when it was just us in the dance community, making videos for ourselves, class videos and that kind of thing. And then there was the concept video, and then there was the YouTube era, where you had to have the perfectly polished class video, which is still ongoing. But now I think there are just more avenues to express your individuality as a dancer, which is nice to see.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Yeah. It’s not just polish that matters. It’s authenticity. That’s what people are going for.

Oh, that’s a nice note to end on. All right. That’s it for us this week. Thanks everyone for joining us. Next week and the following week we’ll have some special “best of 2021” episodes. Keep an eye out for those. And in the meantime, keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Lydia Murray:
Bye, everyone.